The bus wreck — .the bus accident — .I could never think about it without my mind going back to that day. I was in fourth grade. It was February 28, 1958. More than fifty years since the accident, but it still remains the worst school bus accident in U.S. history. You know how you can remember exactly where you were when you heard that President Kennedy was killed? It’s a memory like that but much closer to home.
I sat in the second seat of the first row of that classroom. Something was wrong that morning, but nobody was telling us what it was. The teacher, Ms. Roberta kept going in and out to the hallway to talk to other teachers. Some of the cooks who worked in the lunchroom came around with a big bottle of medicine and lots of spoons. I never knew what kind of medicine that was, but they asked my teacher if she wanted some and I can still see, vividly, them pouring it into a big tablespoon and Ms. Roberta gulping it down. She was crying, too.
It was still early in the morning, but Ms. Roberta told us that school was going to be dismissed. That usually meant that it had started snowing and everyone was thrilled, but when I looked out the window there wasn’t a single flake. It was just a cold, dreary winter day. What on earth was happening?
As I knelt beside my desk getting my books that I wanted to take with me, Ms. Roberta said, “All of you who walk home can go ahead and leave now.” I had just gotten down the school lane and crossed the street in front of the post office when I saw my mother’s car coming. She was coming to pick me up. When I opened the car door, I saw that she was crying. “What is wrong?” I begged her to tell me.
“There’s been a school bus wreck,” she said. “The bus went in the river and I’m afraid Madelyn is on the bus. Now listen.” She shushed me as she turned the volume up on the radio and I heard the news report of the tragedy.
Floyd County school bus number 27 hauling children to Prestonsburg Grade School and Prestonsburg High School from Calf Creek, Cow Creek and Knottly Hollow has skidded off US 23 and plunged into the rain-swollen waters of the Big Sandy River.
Madelyn was my cousin, Aunt Malta’s daughter, the same cousin who called me the Sunday after Thanksgiving to tell me that Aunt Malta had passed away. Madelyn had been sick that day and had stayed home from school.
I don’t remember if they gave any more details right then, but for the next several days and weeks everyone sat by their radios and televisions as the bodies of twenty-six students, ages ranging from eight to seventeen and the twenty-seven year old bus driver were recovered from the muddy waters. Some bodies had floated as far as Louisa and it was seventy-one days until the last body was recovered.
This tragedy had put the whole nation’s focus on Prestonsburg, Kentucky. It drew nationwide sympathy for the parents of the children and respect for the stoic courage of the Prestonsburg people.
The Big Sandy River (like the Nile) flowed north, spilling into the Ohio River. Mother would talk to Aunt Alta who lived in Lucasville, near Portsmouth, Ohio, and I would hear her say, “When are you all coming up?” I couldn’t understand why she said “up”. Even I, who hated geography, knew that Ohio was north of Kentucky. It took me awhile to figure out that around here, people talked in terms of the river. We lived upriver from Aunt Alta.
I personally knew two of the students who drowned. They were in my grade. One was in my room and was a friend of mine. James Carey was my friend and the only child his mom and dad had. Now he was gone.
We had been practicing for a play that we had written. The teacher was letting us do it all. We got to write the play, pick the cast, practice all by ourselves and we were going to get to present it to the rest of the school. We spent our recess time practicing.
The last time we had practiced, Jimmy was goofing off, being silly, not trying to get his lines right. It had frustrated me that he wouldn’t get serious and I had told him that I hated him. Now Jimmy was gone, and that was the last thing I had said to him. I didn’t really mean it, but I would never get to tell him that, and I would never get to say “I’m sorry.”
I made a promise to myself that no matter how mad I ever got at anybody for the rest of my life, I would never tell them that I hated them. I have kept that promise.
Years later, I found out that my husband(Abe Vanderpool) had a brother, Ike, who had been on the bus. He was one of the survivors. Abe’s family lived on Calf Creek. Abe and his sister Phyllis were still in grade school and they rode another bus to Allen Elementary, but his brother, Ike and his sister, Sarah, were in high school and rode bus 27 to Prestonsburg High School.
I asked Abe one time how come his sister Sarah wasn’t on the bus that day. Abe told me that his mother had gotten very sick with something that the doctor couldn’t diagnose so he had put her in the hospital to run tests. Sarah had had to stay home with their baby sister, Martha, who was too young to go to school. The day of the bus wreck, Abe’s mom got better and they never knew what had been wrong with her. Ike told the family that if Sarah, who couldn’t swim, had been on the bus, he wouldn’t have been able to save himself and leave her in the water.
I wanted to go to Jimmy Carey’s funeral to honor him. It would be a way to let him know I was sorry for what I had said. Two of my older sisters were going to several of the funerals and they were going to Jimmy’s because they had worked with his mother, Louise in the summer at Ben Franklin’s 5 and 10-cent store. They told me I could go with them to his funeral, but they slipped off and went without me. I cried when I found out, but my mother said it would be too hard on me, and she had told them to go on without me. I figured that she knew best, but I was hurt that they had deceived me.
They ruled the bus wreck an accident, an accident that was nobody’s fault. Not the bus driver, not the Floyd County Board of Education, nor the mechanics who worked on the bus, just an accident. Not one lawsuit was filed. How different things were in those days!
The only good thing that came from that awful tragedy was that the Floyd County Emergency and Rescue Squad was formed two months after the accident. It was led by a man named James “Beatty” Goble who lost all three of his children in the bus wreck.
A documentary has been made about this horrific accident. It is called “The Very Worst Thing” and has been shown around the state. Hopefully, the documentary will go nationwide. You can find out more about the documentary at www.theveryworstthing.com.